Drones Lure Young Chinese Back to Farming

Drones Lure Young Chinese Back to Farming
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

What you need to know

As agriculture grows more high-tech, an entrepreneurial spirit draws the children of Xinjiang’s farmers back to their childhood homes.

When Guo Jianzhen was a teenager, he would help out in his family’s cotton fields during summer vacations. Carrying a box containing 15 liters of mepiquat chloride on his back, Guo walked the fields of Xinjiang, in far-flung northwestern China, spraying chemicals on the plants to stunt the growth of their stalks and increase the size of their flowers.

For the young boy, the task was arduous. The July sun was scorching, and working for three hours in the morning exhausted his strength to the extent that he could barely stand with the box on his back. Once, he felt so overwhelmed that he couldn’t stand back up after sitting down, like a turtle that has been turned onto its back. “I was so angry at myself that I burst into tears,” remembers the stocky, gregarious Guo. “I thought, ‘It’s so hard being a farmer!’”

A decade later, Guo, now 25, stills manages his family’s crops — only these days he does so using one of the world’s most popular high-tech gadgets: an unmanned aerial vehicle, better known as a drone.

With the help of a drone, Guo can accomplish in 15 minutes a job that used to take him three exhausting hours. He types in the coordinates, presses a button, and covers the 150 mu (nearly 25 acres) of land in chemicals. (Mu is a unit of area in China approximately equal to one-sixth of an acre.) “These drones represent the future [of agriculture],” Guo said.

China’s drone industry is in flux. Instead of creating machines exclusively for amateur photographers, manufacturers are catching on to the vast potential for drones in commercial agriculture. Drones can spray crops with pesticides, weed-killers, and growth regulators 30 to 60 times faster than a person wandering the fields with a tank strapped to their back. Because of their efficiency, even in spraying, drones only use half as much chemicals and 90 percent less water. In Japan, drones already help to manage 54 percent of all farmlands. In China, that percentage is still in the single digits, though it’s steadily rising.

In December 2015, there were 100 companies in China producing agricultural drones, including DJI, the world’s leading consumer drone maker. Industry analyst iResearch notes that investments in drone companies have boomed from 65 million yuan (US$9.4 million) in 2013 to 1.7 billion yuan in 2015.

In addition, agri-drone companies now offer to spray chemicals on farmland from around 8 yuan per mu. There are currently more than 2,300 agricultural drones in use in China, but Shen Jianwen, who runs a drone manufacturing company in Wuxi, in the eastern province of Jiangsu, estimates that by 2020, 100,000 drones and 400,000 pilots will be required to meet demand from the farming sector.

Xinjiang is the perfect testing ground for this kind of technology, as drones function better on large, geometric patches of land. In China’s more populous areas, such as the coastal provinces, farmers often parcel the land into smaller, irregularly shaped plots; the fields of Xinjiang, however, lie on an expansive, featureless plain. While the average Chinese peasant family owns just 7 mu of land, it’s not uncommon for farming families in Xinjiang to own 1,000 mu or more.

When Guo graduated from university, farming was not his first choice for a career. His parents had planned a more stable, lucrative future in the city for him and his younger brother, away from their rural roots. To that end, Guo earned a degree in electrical engineering and automation from the Chongqing University of Posts and Telecommunications in 2014 and landed a clerk’s job in a government office tasked with promoting investment in Yuli County, an agricultural area 50 kilometers south of Guo’s hometown of Korla.

But this job lasted less than a year, as Guo began to hear about ambitious, technology-driven agriculture projects. Though he knew nothing about drones, he was fascinated by the idea of using machines instead of men to spray pesticides. Quickly tiring of his humdrum office job, Guo resigned after four months and joined XAircraft, a drone manufacturer that had just launched an agricultural division in Yuli. Guo was their sixth employee.

Guo’s mother was unimpressed by her son’s new job. She couldn’t understand why, after all his work to gain a degree and find a stable job, he wanted to go back to “dusty” work in the fields. “She told me I had done enough farm work as a child,” recalled Guo. “But my experience led me to think that if the drone business worked out, it would end up having a huge impact on agriculture.”

Since his career change, Guo has been promoted to assistant to the general manager of XAircraft’s Xinjiang branch, where the company trains drone pilots. The local operation has grown to include 600 staff members, and Guo’s first client was his own father.

Guo’s journey from village to university and back diverges from the traditional narrative of the rural graduate. Postgraduate students typically head to cities and towns, leaving communities bereft of a young generation to sustain their largely agrarian economies. But while Guo himself may have taken to the technology easily, asking older farmers to rethink techniques that go back centuries is no mean feat.

In July 2015, farmland 8 kilometers north of Yuli was ravaged by aphids, and a farmer was poisoned after inhaling the pesticide he had used to protect his crops. The man’s neighbor, He Wenguang, decided to give drones a try. Tired of high rent, long commutes, and city life in general, He’s 24-year-old son, He Xi, returned home and, after watching the drone at work, hatched a plan: The former IT student would join XAircraft and learn to fly drones. Now, he is a captain managing a team of 20 pilots, and — like Guo — his father is one of his clients.

For drone manufacturers, the move from hobby and novelty to farming has tapped into a burgeoning market. Justin Gong, vice president and co-founder of XAircraft, told Sixth Tone that agricultural drones, which usually fly at a height of around 2 meters, do not inspire the same safety and privacy concerns as consumer drones. Because of this freedom from oversight, Gong believes they have greater market potential.

XAircraft began testing agricultural drones in 2013 and released its first prototype in April 2015. It has since recruited a service team of 800 drone pilots who operate in 14 provinces. Last year, the company flew drones over an area greater than 2 million mu — up 250 percent from the previous year. Half of this land is in Xinjiang.

However, despite a surge in growth, agricultural drones remain prohibitively expensive for many would-be customers. Costing between 60,000 yuan and 100,000 yuan, few farmers can afford to buy their own. For now, there’s no national subsidy program to assist farmers hoping to upgrade their equipment, although some provincial governments have begun offering financial incentives. In Henan province, for example, farmers can apply for financial aid to purchase their own.

Drone manufacturers have also tried to court farmers, who operate on the slimmest of margins, with special deals. He Wenguang’s 49-year-old neighbor, Pu Jianmin, tried a drone in 2015 at a promotional rate of 5 yuan per mu — but Pu reverted to his old methods when the cost rose to 8 yuan, telling Sixth Tone he would rather save the 1,200 yuan and do the job himself. “If the price of cotton went up, I’d use the drones,” he said. “After all, the work is bad for my health.”

Guo’s 22-year-old brother, who is studying engineering management in Xi’an, the capital of northwestern China’s Shaanxi province, wants to come home, too. In the future, the pair hopes to start an organic farming business together. In the meantime, Guo is applying for a graduate program at Xinjiang Agricultural University.

“With the change in our understanding of agriculture and social development, we won’t continue to farm our land in the traditional way,” said Guo. “Instead, we will manage the land in a more modern and technological way.”

“No young people today want to work on the farm because farm work is really hard,” added He Xi, echoing Guo’s sentiments. “When the old farmers retire, the industry will have to rely on technology and machines.”

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.

Editor: Olivia Yang